A few weeks ago, Microsoft and Sony unveiled rival motion control systems, presumably in response to Nintendo’s dominant market position. The Wii has sold much better than both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (to the point where sales of Xbox and PS3 combined are around the same as the Wii), so I suppose it’s only natural for the competition to adapt. To be honest, I’m not sure how wise that would be… or rather, I’m not sure Sony and Microsoft are imitating the right things. Microsoft’s Project Natal seems quite ambitious in that it relies completely on gestures and voice (no controllers!). The Sony motion control system, which relies on a camera and two handheld wands, seems somewhat similar to the Wii in that there are still controllers and buttons. Incidentally, the Wii actually released Wii Motion Plus, an improvement to their already dominant system.
My first thought at a way to compete with the Wii would have been along similar lines, but not for the reasons I suspect Microsoft and Sony released their solutions. The problem for MS & Sony is that the Wii is the unquestionable winner of this generation of gaming consoles, and everyone knows that. A third party video game developer can create a game for a console with an install base of 20 million (the PS3), 30 million (Xbox) or 50 million (Wii). Since the PS3 and Xbox have similar controllers, 3rd parties can often release games on both consoles, though there is overhead in porting your code to both systems. This gives a rough parity between those two systems and the Wii… until you realize that developing games for the Xbox/PS3 means HD and that means those games will be much more costly (in both time and money) to develop. On the other hand, you could reach the same size audience by developing a game for the Wii, using standard definition (which is much easier to develop for) and not having to worry about compatibility issues between two consoles.
The problem with Natal and Sony’s Wands is that they basically represent brand new consoles. This totally negates the third party advantage of releasing a game on both platforms. Now a third party developer who wants to create a motion control game is forced to choose between two underperforming platforms and one undisputed leader in the field. How do you think that’s going to go?
Microsoft’s system seems to be the most interesting in that they’re trying something much different than Nintendo or Sony. But “interesting” doesn’t necessarily translate into successful, and from what I’ve read, Natal is a long ways away from production quality. Yeah, the marketing video they created is pretty neat, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t quite work that well yet. Even MS execs are saying that what’s in the video is “conceptual” and what they “hope” to have at launch. If they launch it at all. I’d be surprised if what we’re seeing is ever truly launched. Yeah, the Minority Report interface (which is basically what Natal is) really looks cool, but I have my doubts about how easy it will be to actually use. Won’t your arms get tired? Why use motion gestures for something that is so much easier and more precise with a mouse?
Sony’s system seems to be less ambitious, but also too different from Nintendo’s Wiimote. If I were at Sony, I would have tried to duplicate the Wiimote almost exactly. Why? Because then you give 3rd party developers the option of developing for Wii then porting to PS3, thus enlarging the pie from 50 million to 70 million with minimal effort. Sure the graphics wouldn’t be as impressive as other PS3 efforts, but as the Wii has amply demonstrated, you don’t need unbelievable graphics to be successful. The PS3 would probably need a way to upscale the SD graphics to ensure they don’t look horrible, but that should be easy enough. I’m sure there would be some sort of legal issue with that idea, but I’m also sure Sony could weasel their way out of any such troubles. To be clear, this strategy wouldn’t have a chance at cutting into Wii sales – it’s more of a holding pattern, a way to stop the bleeding (it might help them compete with MS though). Theoretically, Sony’s system isn’t done yet either and could be made into something that could get Wii ports, but somehow I’m doubting that will actually be in the works.
The big problem with both Sony and Microsoft’s answer to the Wiimote is that they’ve completely misjudged what made the Wii successful. It’s not the Wiimote and motion controls, though that’s part of it. It’s that Nintendo courted everyone, not just video gamers. They courted grandmas and kids and “hardcore” gamers and “casual” gamers and everyone inbetween. They changed video games from solitary entertainment to something that is played in living rooms with families and friends. They moved into the Blue Ocean and disrupted the gaming industry. The unique control system was important, but I think that’s because the control system was a signfier that the Wii was for everyone. The fact that it was simple and intuitive was more important than motion controls. The most important part of the process wasn’t motion controls, but rather Wii Sports. Yes, Wii Sports uses motion controls, and it uses them exceptionally well. It’s also extremely simple and easy to use and it was targeted towards everyone. It was a lot of fun to pop in Wii Sports and play some short games with your friends or family (or coworkers or enemies or strangers off the street or whoever).
The big problem for me is that even Nintendo hasn’t improved on motion controls much since then. It’s been 3 years since Wii Sports, and yet it’s still probably the best example of motion controls in action. I have not played any Wii Motion Plus games yet, so for me, the jury is still out on that one. However, I’m not that interested in playing the games I’m seeing for Motion Plus, let alone the prospect of paying for yet another peripheral for my Wii (though it does seem to be cheap). The other successful games for the Wii weren’t so much successful for their motion controls so much as other, intangible factors. Mario Kart is successful… because it’s always successful (incidentally, while I still enjoy playing with friends every now and again, the motion controls have nothing to do with that – it’s more just the nostagia I have for the original Mario Kart). Wii Fit has been an amazing success story for Nintendo, but it introduced a completely new peripheral and its success is probably more due to the fact that Nintendo was targeting more than just the core gamer audience with software that broadened what was possible on a video game console. Again, Nintendo’s success is due to their strategy of creating new customers and their marketing campaigns that follow the same strategy. Wii has a lot of games that have less than imaginitive motion controls – games which simply replace random button mashing with random stick waggling. But where they’re most successful seems to be where they target a broader audience. They also seem to be quite adept at playing on people’s nostalgia, hence I find myself playing new Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games, even when I don’t like some of them (I’m looking at you, Metroid Prime 3!)
Motion controls play a part in this, but they’re the least important part. Why? Because the same complaints I have for Natal and the Minority Report interface apply to the Wii (or the new PS3 system, for that matter). For example, take Metroid Prime 3. A FPS for the Wii! Watch how motion controls will revolutionize FPS! Well, not so much. There are a lot of reasons I don’t like the game, but one of the reasons was that you constantly had to have your Wiimote pointed up. If your hand strayed or you wanted to rest your wrists for a moment, your POV also strays. There are probably some other ways to do FPS on the Wii, but I’m not especially convinced (The Conduit looks promising, I guess) that a true FPS game will work that well on a Wii (heck, it doesn’t work that well on a PS3 or Xbox when compared to the PC). That’s probably why Rail Shooters have been much more successful on the Wii.
Part of the issue I have is that motion controls are great for short periods of time, but even when you’re playing a great motion control game like Wii Sports, playing for long periods of time has adverse affects (Wii elbow anyone?). Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe gamers shouldn’t spend so much time playing video games… but personally, I enjoy a nice marathon session every now and again.
You know what this reminds me of? New Coke. Seriously. Why did Coca-Cola change their time-honored and fabled secred formula? Because of the Pepsi Challenge. In the early 1980s, Coke was losing ground to Pepsi. Coke had long been the most popular soft drink, so they were quite concerned about their diminishing lead. Pepsi was growing closer to parity every day, and that’s when they started running these commercials pitting Coke vs. Pepsi. The Pepsi Challenge took dedicated Coke drinkers and asked them to take a sip from two different glasses, one labeled Q and one labeled M. Invariably, people chose the M glass, which was revealed to contain Pepsi. Coke initially disputed the results… until they started private running sip tests of their own. It turns out that people really did prefer Pepsi (hard as that may be for those of us who love Coke!). So Coke started tinkering with their secret formula, attempting to make it lighter and sweeter (i.e. more like Pepsi). Eventually, they got to a point where their new formulation consistently outperformed Pepsi in sip tests, and thus New Coke was born. Of course, we all know what happened. New Coke was a disaster. Coke drinkers were outraged, the company’s sales plunged, and Coke was forced to bring back the original formula as “Classic Coke” just a few months later (at which point New Coke practically disappeared). What’s more, Pepsi’s seemingly unstoppable ascendance never materialized. For the past 20-30 years, Coke has beaten Pepsi despite sip tests which say that it should be the other way around. What was going on here? Malcolm Gladwell explains this incident and the aftermath in his book Blink:
The difficulty with interpreting the Pepsi Challenge findings begins with the fact that they were based on what the industry calls a sip test or a CLT (central location test). Tasters don’t drink the entire can. They take a sip from a cup of each of the brands being tested and then make their choice. Now suppose I were to ask you to test a soft drink a little differently. What if you were to take a case of the drink home and tell me what you think after a few weeks? Would that change your opinion? It turns out it would. Carol Dollard, who worked for Pepsi for many years in new-product development, says, “I’ve seen many times when the CLT will give you one result and the home-use test will give you the exact opposite. For example, in a CLT, consumers might taste three or four different products in a row, taking a sip or a couple sips of each. A sip is very different from sitting and drinking a whole beverage on your own. Sometimes a sip tastes good and a whole bottle doesn’t. That’s why home-use tests give you the best information. The user isn’t in an artificial setting. They are at home, sitting in front of the TV, and the way they feel in that situation is the most reflective of how they will behave when the product hits the market.”
Dollard says, for instance, that one of the biases in a sip test is toward sweetness: “If you only test in a sip test, consumers will like the sweeter product. But when they have to drink a whole bottle or can, that sweetness can get really overpowering or cloying.” Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test. Does this mean that the Pepsi Challenge was a fraud? Not at all. It just means that we have two different reactions to colas. We have one reaction after taking a sip, and we have another reaction after drinking a whole can.
To me, motion controls seem like a video game sip test. The analogy isn’t perfect, because I think that motion controls are here to stay, but I think the idea is relevant. Coke is like Sony – they look at a successful competitor and completely misjudge what made them successful. Yes, motion controls are a part of the Wii’s success, but their true success lies elsewhere. In small doses and optimized for certain games (like bowling or tennis), nothing can beat motion controls. In larger doses with other types of games, motion controls have a long ways to go (and they make my arm sore). Microsoft and Sony certainly don’t seem to be abandoning their standard controllers, and even the Wii has a “Classic Controller”, and I think that’s about right. Motion controls have secured a place in gaming going forward, but I don’t see it completely displacing good old-fashioned button mashing either.
Update: Incidentally, I forgot to mention the best motion control game I’ve played since Wii Sports has been… Flower, for the PS3. Flower is also probably a good example of a game that makes excellent use of motion controls, but hasn’t achieved anywhere near the success of Nintendo’s games. It’s not because it isn’t a good game (it is most definitely an excellent game, and the motion controls are great), it’s because it doesn’t expand the audience the way Nintendo does. If Natal and Sony’s new system do make it to market, and if they do manage to release good games (and those are two big “ifs”), I suspect it won’t matter much…